Experiential gifts let you skip the mall

Treat your loved ones to excursions, trips and personalized momentos

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From the December/January 2014 issue of the magazine.

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Michael Hudson/Canadian Press

Michael Hudson/Canadian Press

Here’s the problem with Christmas: you can’t get to the most wonderful time of the year without going through the most stressful time of the year. That’s right, the annual slog through gridlocked parking garages and packed shopping malls, the bright hope of finding perfect, meaningful gifts fading with each passing hour until you settle, inevitably, for the sort of uninspired material tokens you only ever find in packed shopping malls.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In fact, by concentrating on experiential gifts instead of material goods, you can fulfill your gift-giving obligations without ever setting foot in a shop, let alone a hated mall. Best of all, studies have shown that experiential gifts—things people do, instead of accumulate—tend to be better received than commercial goods, which too often can be reduced to a banal dollar exchange.

When I was 20, my then-girlfriend gave me a week at a Cuban beach resort for Christmas. Thirty years later, details of that particular vacation remain vivid in my mind: the white sand beach, the fat, freshly rolled Cuban cigars, the lobster pizza served in an open-air restaurant by an apologetic waitress. (“Do you mind if we give you extra lobster? We ran out of cheese.”)

Granted, a southern vacation is a pretty extravagant gift, but Seattle-based behavioural psychologist Matt Wallaert says it’s not so much the expense, but the experience, that makes some gifts memorable to the point where they last a lifetime. “Experiential gifts like vacations are not only well received, but they tend to live on in interesting ways,” says Wallaert. “When you come back from a trip you’re going to have a lot of memories and a lot to talk about, and that’s one of the hallmarks of an experiential gift.”

And if you can’t afford to dole out Caribbean vacations at Christmas? No worries: experiential gifts can include everything from a day at the local ski resort or spa, to hockey or concert tickets, paintball sessions, tennis lessons—anything you actively participate in or “experience.”

Shared trips or activities can be particularly meaningful because they generate shared memories, but can also fall flat, warns Wallaert. “People sometimes forget in the gift-giving process, it’s about what the other person attaches meaning to, not what you attach meaning to. A day at the spa for two isn’t a great gift if your husband has no interest in spas. The experience has to be something both of you will enjoy.”

Of course, experiential gifts don’t have to be shared. “Last Christmas my mom surprised me with eight sessions with a personal trainer,” recalls 21-year-old Thunder Bay, Ont., native Michael Robinson. “At first I thought it was kind of lame, but then it grew on me, and it ended up being one of my favourite gifts.”

The parents of 18-year-old Arielle Follett stunned her last Christmas when they gave her an appointment with a tattoo artist. “It wasn’t the most traditional gift to receive, especially from parents, but I couldn’t imagine a better present,” Follett says. The tattoo is a set of quotation marks, a declaration of her ambition to become a journalist. “It was something I really wanted, something I get to keep forever. And unlike most of the material gifts one receives for Christmas, it had special meaning for me.”

Some of the best gifts are experiences the recipients will love but would never consider doing on their own: a whale watching trip, for example, or a helicopter ride. “If your girlfriend really loves chimps, see if you can organize a chance for her to interact with chimps,” Wallaert says, “Experiences that don’t normally exist, that you have to arrange yourself, make particularly powerful gifts because they’re totally unexpected and take effort on your part.”

Things you make yourself—photo collages, music recordings, baking, art—can also be experiential. So can charitable and socially conscious gifts like donations to food banks or “toy mountains,” investments in environmental companies or funds, or sponsorship of children in developing countries.

And sometimes, just being there for friends and loved ones is gift enough. “I have too much stuff already, so when it comes to getting gifts, I would rather people do things with me or just give me their time,” says student and Ottawa resident Myriah Saulnier. “I think that says so much more than another Bath and Body Works lotion someone bought on sale.”

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